by Stephanie J. Dallam, RN, Ph.D., and Joyanna L. Silberg, Ph.D.*
Editor’s Note: We are pleased to print an updated version of what has become a classic, much cited article written by two well established
researchers in the domestic violence field. Stephanie Dallam and Joyanna Silberg, both of whom have special expertise in child custody litigation involving abuse, outline the common myths that court personnel inevitably rely upon while in the process of mishandling a child custody cases affected by abuse allegations.
Child abuse is a widespread problem in our society and families with a history of violence often end in divorce. Over three million cases of child abuse and neglect are reported in the US each year (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2013), and approximately one in two marriages in the United States end in divorce, affecting approximately a million children per year (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1997). In most cases, conflicts around custody and access are resolved by the parents themselves outside of court. One large scale study found that approximately 80% of divorce cases are settled, either up front, or as the case moves through the legal process (Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992). If the parents are unable to reach such an agreement, the court determines the relative allocation of decision making authority and physical contact each parent will have with the child. Twenty-five percent of parents experience substantial conflict during the divorce process and approximately 20% of families take the case to court. population of divorcing adults (Bruch, 2001; Johnson & Campbell, 1993).
Unfortunately custody litigation can become a vehicle whereby batterers and child abusers attempt to extend or maintain their control and authority over their victims after the marriage dissolves. Although, research has not found a higher incidence of false allegations of child abuse and domestic violence in the context of custody/visitation, officers of the court tend to be unreasonably suspicious of such claims. As a result, custody decisions are too often based on popular myths, misinterpretation of facts, and evaluator bias. As this review indicates, battered parents and abused children run a significant risk of finding themselves re-victimized rather than helped by the justice system.
The following are some of the erroneous beliefs that are contributing to this national problem.
MYTH 1: FALSE ALLEGATIONS OF SEXUAL ABUSE ARE COMMON DURING CUSTODY DISPUTES
When antagonistic parents are locked in legal disputes it is reasonable to be concerned about their motives when allegations are made. However, research has consistently shown that sexual abuse allegations are not common during custody litigation and generally are not more likely to be false than those raised at other times. There is no evidence from the present research to suggest that a significant number of parents are fabricating allegations of abuse to win custody battles.
For instance, The Denver-based Research Unit of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts performed a two year study which explored the incidence and validity of sexual abuse allegations in custody cases in 12 states between 1985 and 1987 (Thoennes & Tjaden, 1990). Contrary to the popular myth that sexual allegations in custody cases are common, the study found that only 2 to 6% of custody involved allegations of sexual abuse. Half of the allegations were believed by the investigators to be true, and in another 17% determination of the validity could not be made with any degree of certainty. The remaining third of the cases were not believed to involve abuse.
However, in most cases in which abuse was not substantiated, the allegations were believed to have been made in good faith and based on genuine suspicions. This national study refutes the notion that sexual abuse allegations in the context of custody and visitation cases are epidemic, as well as the idea that these cases are commonly motivated by a reporting parent who is vindictive or seriously impaired.
Similar results have been found by other researchers. Faller and DeVoe (1995) examined 215 cases of child sexual abuse allegations in families involved in a divorce, only 2.8% of the parents were judged to be maliciously promulgating false allegations of abuse. An Australian study (Brown, Frederico, Hewitt, & Sheehan, 1997) found the overall rate of false allegations during divorce to be around 9%, similar to the rate of false allegations at any other time. Schuman (2000) reviewed research that found a range of 1-5% for rates of deliberately false allegations, and 14-21% for mistaken allegations. The 1998 Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect (CIS-98) is the first national study to document the rate of intentionally false allegations of abuse and neglect investigated by child welfare services
in Canada (Trocme & Bala, 2005). The researchers examined 7,672 child maltreatment investigations reported to child welfare authorities because of suspected child abuse or neglect. Only 4% of all cases were considered to be intentionally fabricated. Within the subsample of cases wherein a custody or access dispute had occurred, the rate of allegations that were judged to be intentionally false allegations was 12%. However, mothers and children were the least likely to fabricate reports of abuse or neglect. Only 2% of allegations by custodial parents (usually mothers) were believed to be false. Most reports believed to be intentionally false came from anonymous reporters and noncustodial parents (usually fathers).